Relating, Creating, Transforming

Aha!

Isaiah 60:1-3; 5-6   Matthew 2:1,2   

Image result for epiphanyHave you ever had a moment when things seemed to click for you, when a seemingly unsolvable problem or issue became solvable? Did the hair stand up on your arm? Did you jump up and shout Eureka! or did an imaginary light bulb suddenly appear over your head?

Yes, I’m referring to what are often called Aha Moments. Scientifically, they are known as the eureka effect, “the common human experience of suddenly understanding a previously incomprehensible problem or concept.”[1] Some researchers also describe this effect as an insight or an epiphany. In 2012, the Merriam-Webster dictionary added “aha moment” to their dictionary, based on Oprah Winfrey’s definition—a moment of sudden realization, inspiration, insight, recognition, or comprehension. Oprah, in her magazine and television show, hosted various guests who shared their aha moments. She said:

Image result for oprah aha moment
“I always love those moments when I sit down to talk to somebody and they say something that makes me look at life or a situation in a completely different way. And I say, ‘Aha! I get it!’ Light bulb . . . and the little hairs on your arm stand up. That is an aha moment.”

Oprah isn’t the only one to note that aha moments come in all shapes and sizes. Throughout history, there have been many. And they are all unique:

Bill Gates, found of Microsoft, realized that he would never be able to make the computer operating system he wanted unless he sold it first. No one was doing this at the time. So basically, he sold and idea. Aha!

Brian Chesky, Air BnB founder, rented out his air mattress and make money. Aha!

Jan Koum, founder of Whatsapp, could not afford to call his father in the Ukraine. Aha!

Melitta Bentz, in Germany, was tired of bitter, bad-tasting coffee that was brewed in a bag. Coffee filtration was born. Aha!

Caresse Crosby, In NYC, was tired of corsets. So she designed a bra. Aha!

And Doc Brown, the somewhat-mad scientist of the Back to the Future movies, had his aha moment in the bathroom.

Image result for doc brownHe slipped while hanging a clock and hit his head on the sink. This accident led to his idea for the flux capacitor, the thing that would eventually power the DeLorean time machine that would lead Marty McFly to many adventures.

Image result for flux capacitor

Can you think of any aha moments in history, or even your own? Where did they happen? What were you doing? What did it lead you to?

January 6th, for Christians around the world, marks the beginning of the Epiphany season—a season that is supposed to stretch all the way until Lent. It is an Aha season for sure, as the word Epiphany, from Greek, means ‘manifestation’ or ‘appearance.’ For Christians, the obvious connection is to Jesus of Nazareth being a manifestation of God. In the Gospel story of Matthew, magi/astrologers from the East seek out Jesus as a small child and bring him gifts. They follow a star to discover Jesus. They consider the light of the star and the light of Jesus to be divine appearances, aha moments. That story of the magi is based on the prophet Isaiah’s writings so long ago—a prophecy about light coming into the world, and of “woke” people honoring that light and bringing gifts.

So in this season of epiphany, how can you and I be more open to aha moments?

There is science behind it. For example, most people would say that they make their best decisions when they are not actively trying to make a choice or solve a problem, right? Usually, it happens when they are taking a shower, driving in a car or riding a train, working out, walking. Aha moments tend to come when we quiet our minds and our consciousness gets a break. Complex problems that are way too big are often only solved by aha moments within a quieted mind and experience. Many, many religious traditions agree with science on this one. Meditation, prayer, fasting, service to others—these are all behavioral practices that can quiet the mind and perhaps lead to aha moments.

But here are some practical ways you can create environments for your own epiphanies and aha moments and manifestations, as per Harvard Business Review:[2]

  1. Quiet yourself [see above]. Step away, find a space, unplug.
  2. Focus on inner thoughts. What are you thinking right now? What’s going on inside you?
  3. Positively approach the problem [mood]. If you feel stuck, do something fun. Laugh. Revisit.
  4. Use less effort/path of least resistance. Animals are great at this.

And now, one fun example, which I’m sure many of you have seen. The problem of nine dots. I’ll use ladybugs, courtesy of the good people at Archimedes-lab.org because ladybugs are more fun.

Your challenge is to draw four straight lines which go through the middle of all of the ladybugs without taking your writing utensil or finger off the screen/paper. Go!

ladybug1How’s it going? Right. It’s hard. So now, try this. Don’t draw straight lines; use curvy lines. Now can you do it?

ladybug2Now, applying that same idea, try to think outside the box. For real. Outside the box. There is no box here. Your lines aren’t limited to a box. Does that help? Did you arrive at this solution?

ladybug3

You see, sometimes we do get stuck in patterns or reoccurring themes that keep us in a box. We feel limited; we can’t find clarity. Obstacles appear all around. Oftentimes we need an epiphany to wake us up to new opportunities and possibilities.

So friends, may it be so. Find quiet within. Take a step back. Be open to epiphanies.

Who knows what you might discover!

 

 

[1] Auble, P.; Franks, J.; Soraci, S. (1979). “Effort toward comprehension: Elaboration or aha!?”. Memory & Cognition. 7: 426–434.

[2] 4 Steps to Having More “Aha” Moments, David Rock, Josh Davis, Harvard Business Review, October 12, 2016.

Advertisements

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, 2 Corinthians 5:17

Many of you are probably familiar with the musical Rent, a rock musical with music, lyrics, and book by Jonathan Larson, loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème. Rent follows the story of a group friends who are mostly young artists struggling to survive in New York City’s East Village in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The setting is a place called Bohemian Alphabet City, and the devastating disease haunting the community is HIV/AIDS.

The opening number of Rent is called Seasons of Love.

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?

In daylights, in sunsets
In midnights, in cups of coffee
In inches, in miles
In laughter, in strife
In five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure a year in the life

How about love?
Remember the love
Measure in love
Measure, measure your life in love

This time of the “year” we spend a of time reflecting on the past “year” of five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes. What were those 525,600 moments like for you in 2017? The thing is, have you ever wondered why we say 365 days and 525,600 minutes make a year and why we have to mark each year as something significant?

Some of you may be history buffs, and if you are, you’ll know that calendars have been around for a long, long time.

But it is important to know that the original calendars created by humans were based solely on the position of the sun and the moon; in other words, they were lunisolar calendars. No Google syncing involved with that calendar.

Image result for calendar funny memes

Much later, the Roman calendar, based on many of these ancient observations of the sun and the moon, was reformed by Julius Caesar in 45 BCE. The main difference was that now the calendar was not based on natural observations of the sun and moon but instead an algorithm of including a leap year every four years. But don’t thank the Romans just yet.

How about the Persians?

In the 11th century, a mathematician, astronomer and poet, Omar Khayyam, in Nishapur [NE Iran], measured the length of a year to be just a few decimal points more than 365 days. His calculation was incredible, considering that it was more accurate than the calendar proposed by Pope Gregory XIII five centuries later! And that’s pretty important to know, because the calendar that the Pope introduced was called the the Gregorian calendar [a refinement of the Julian calendar], and is today in worldwide use as the de facto calendar for secular purposes.

Image result for gregorian calendar funny memes

Meanwhile, in Iran, they continue to follow an observation-based calendar, unlike the Gregorian, which is rule-based. Finally, consider that today seasonal calendars rely on changes in the environment rather than lunar or solar observations. The Islamic and some Buddhist calendars are still lunar, while most modern calendars are solar, based on either the Julian or the Gregorian calendars.

Why does this matter?

Because we’re convinced, in this day and age, that every December 31st a year ends and a new one begins. We go to parties, pay money for champagne or lavish trips; we cry, mourn, regret, kiss, celebrate, and make new year’s resolutions. We seem convinced that we must measure these 525,600 minutes. And it’s often difficult and triggering for many of us.

So what I’d like to do, if just for a moment, is to challenge all of us to ask this question:

Is a year, 365 days, 525,600 minutes, really important?

Must we measure our lives by those moments, already mathematically defined for us?

Or is there something more to this life, to this existence?

Spoiler alert: I think there is more.

Image result for spoiler alert memes
I’m not criticizing anyone who celebrates New Year’s Eve, toasts with champagne, makes, resolutions, etc. Hey, if it’s an excuse to party and have fun, why not? I’m just questioning whether this idea of a “year” and measuring it is healthy and honest. Instead, I’m lifting up another, also ancient idea—that we as creatures of this earth are experiencing seasons.

This is nothing new of course. Ancient writings, including the wisdom literature of the Hebrews, said that everything had a season. There was a time for everything, and it wasn’t based on some calendar approved by some Pope. There was a season for everything.

Being born, dying, planting, harvesting, killing, healing, breaking down, building up, weeping, laughing, mourning, dancing, throwing away stones, gathering stones, embracing, not embracing, seeking, losing, keeping, throwing away, tearing, sewing, keeping silent, speaking, loving, hating, warring, and making peace.

So during this time, when you’re told to mark the beginning of a new year, here’s a better question: what season are you in now? What time is it for you?

And I wonder, what would happen if you measured each season of your life in love?

It’s always a good time to do that, right?

For future reflection/enjoyment: The Rubaiyat-Poem by Omar Khayyam
Translated into English in 1859 by Edward FitzGerald

III.
And, as the Cock crew, those who stood before
The Tavern shouted – ‘Open then the Door!
You know how little while we have to stay,
And, once departed, may return no more.’

  1. Now the New Year reviving old Desires,
    The thoughtful Soul to Solitude retires,
    Where the White Hand of Moses on the Bough
    Puts out, and Jesus from the Ground suspires.

VII.
Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly – and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.

 

Luke 1:39-41; 46-49; 52,53  

Let’s get this out of the way from the start. I know that for many, the stories about the birth of Jesus of Nazareth carry with them some pretty strong emotions and nostalgia. For some, this story can be confusing, maddening, and perhaps oppressive—depending on how religion [and your family] treated you growing up. I say that right off the bat so we can have an honest [and hopefully healthy] conversation about this story and avoid the common pitfalls around Christmastime. I do my best to present to you facts and background about the Gospel stories so that you can come to your own conclusions. But the main point of all this is not to say which interpretation of a story in the Bible is true or more accurate.

The point of any sacred story is to inspire us to be better people—to love ourselves and to love those around us.

Otherwise, the story has no meaning.

Now that I got that out of the way, let’s dig in to Luke’s story, and remember that I’ll be also discussing the series Stranger Things as part of our reflection. The theme is Love Incarnate in the Upside Down. Incarnate, as a concept, is not some untouchable holy idea, like a shiny white baby with a halo who doesn’t cry or ever commit a sin.

Image result for perfect baby jesus funny
Incarnate means something embodied in flesh; something personified or typified, as a quality or idea; or something represented in a concrete form. So, in this case, we’re talking about two women in Luke’s story [Miriam, called Mary in Greek, and Elizabeth]. Both women were pregnant. The idea, or the thing personified in them is the love and presence of God. Metaphorically, Luke’s story is focused on how the Divine is represented in the lives of the marginalized. In this case, two women—one of them who couldn’t have children [Elizabeth], and one who wasn’t supposed to, Mary.

maryElizArtwork by He Qi 

Luke’s Gospel, written at the tail end of the 1st century in Israel and Palestine, is focused on the theme of God’s salvation story, Divine love in action. Luke’s author focuses on the marginalized of society, specifically, women, the poor, and those stricken with disease or disadvantages. Mary and Elizabeth’s story is the center. Mary/Miriam had little worth according to society. She wasn’t rich, she wasn’t married, she was the last person an angel should visit.

anunciationAnd yet, in Luke’s story, Yahweh values Mary’s life. She’s inspired by this and sings about the stories from the Torah. Yahweh had helped her people the Israelites escape Egypt and oppression. The same would happen now for the poor and lowly, including her. Mary was favored, not because she was pregnant, but because in Luke’s story, the last of society are made to be the first.

Elizabeth’s context is not as humble and certainly not as poor. Was Elizabeth marginalized? Sure, because up to that point she was not able to have children. Sadly, this made her feel isolated and lonely. Of course, that isn’t to say that Elizabeth needed to have a child to have worth. But society sure conditioned her to think that.

I see in Elizabeth and Mary’s story the stories of others who have been told that they don’t have value because of who they love or because they don’t get married or have children. I hear the stories of transgender people who are pressured to conform to their family’s or society’s palatable version of themselves, and if they don’t conform, they are shunned. I hear the stories of children and youth from other countries whose parents came to the U.S. without documentation. The children are called “illegals” and told to “go back” to a country they have never even visited. I hear the stories of the working poor who are called “lazy” while they work three jobs and still can’t pay their bills on time. And I hear the stories of the many people who suffer from mental illnesses and are told by others to “get over it” and yet, every day is a real struggle for them.

And where, in all those stories, is love?

That is the right question to ask.

I’ve been asking this question personally during this past year: where is love personified, incarnate in this upside down world where one tweet can trigger millions and people’s lives are treated like slot machines? An upside down existence when rich and disconnected politicians gamble with the lives of the poor and marginalized? Where is love?

upsideDownteeThis is the question posed in my favorite show of the year, Stranger Things. One of the show’s protagonists is a girl named Eleven; later called by her friend Mike “El,” which means “God” in Hebrew. El’s parallels to Jesus are there.

ELsmilingShe has a mysterious birth story and her true father is never mentioned. El possesses miraculous telekinetic powers. While a prisoner in a government laboratory, she is tempted to use her super powers to kill a cat; she refuses. Later on in the story, El spends time in the wilderness and is sustained only by her manna which is actually Eggo waffles.

ElEGGOS

And finally, El visits the Upside Down dimension and discovers a monster, the Demogorgon. She lays in a cruciform position, arms spread, in a pool of water.

ELcrucifixShe descends into a mental state where she faces the monster and death. She cries out for God and then hears Joyce’s voice [Winona Ryder], saying: “I am here with you.”

You see, in the story of Stranger Things, love can be found even in the Upside Down, even in the midst of darkness and horror. Where is love incarnate? In the presence of those who accept us as we are and in those we can truly call friends. Mike, Dustin, Will, Lucas, El, Joyce, Sheriff Hopper, Jonathan, Bob, Max, Kali, Steve, and Nancy become friends, but not out of convenience or sameness. Their unlikely community forms out of marginalization, suffering, and uncertainty. They form bonds of self-sacrificing love and stand with each other when it is unpopular and inconvenient.

And that’s just it, isn’t it? We can ask this question: where is love? Where is God in this upside down world? And we won’t find the answer in a religion or in money or in power or in isolation. We find love incarnate in each other, when we truly accept each other and stand up for each other on the margins. We discover love incarnate when we help others realize their value, when we don’t give up the fight against oppression and injustice, when we take risks for others out of love.

May we be love incarnate in this, the Upside Down. And may you discover love in others.

Joy Rising Out of Trauma

In the brilliant sci-fi/fantasy Netflix series Stranger Things the main characters all go through trauma:

Joyce loses her son, Will. Jonathan loses his little brother.
joyceJonathan

Eleven/Jane is experimented on, deprived of parental care, tortured, and manipulated psychologically.
eleven-700x525

Dustin, Mike, and Lucas lose their friend and think he’s dead.
dustinmikelucas

Will is taken by a creature to another dimension and no one on the other side knows he’s alive. He is called “zombie boy” by his peers and haunted by nightmarish visions and flashbacks of the Upside Down.
will-byers-is-the-key-to-saving-hawkins-in-stranger-things-final-season-2-trailer2

Kali was experimented on and given a number, like Eleven.
gallery-1509465096-kali-stranger-thingsjpg

Sherriff Hopper lost his child to cancer and his marriage ended.
hopper-stranger-things-1509384618

The list goes on. Trauma. PTSD.

Life in the Upside Down.

Stranger Things 2 also explores the heritage of trauma, and how it can be passed from one person to another. Consider Billy, a bully and the older stepbrother to Max.

tmp_A7KHMF_7b8f95ad63acfc25_Who-Plays-Max-Brother-Billy-Stranger-Things
Billy is pretty much your standard jerk, screaming at Max, pushing around Steve on the basketball court, and warning Max to stay away from Lucas. But the show reveals eventually that Billy is tyrannized by his own father, physically beaten, emotionally abused, and is now repeating what his father wants.

What the show does well is to give us an opportunity to talk about/deal with something that is often very difficult to handle. Anyone who has suffered great trauma in life knows just how hard it can be to address it. Time and time again, the characters of Stranger Things are in a back-and-forth state of post-traumatic stress. They are neither in the moment of trauma nor fully isolated from its effects. This is the Demogorgon.

demoAnd it is extremely difficult to defeat.

In one scene, Joyce, Bob, and the boys are looking for the location of vines that are growing beneath the surface, in the upside down.

mapBobBob’s puzzle-solving skills come in handy, as he is able to draw a map using Will’s seemingly random drawings. This scene is a metaphor for navigating trauma. It’s beneath the surface, but it can be difficult to find a map to heal the lingering emotional wounds.

This is why a sweet kid like Eleven feels like both girl and monster. This is why Will feels like a zombie or a freak.

So how does Stranger Things offer a path to healing?

The show does a great job, I think, of demonstrating shared trauma: many of the main characters stand with each other in solidarity, encourage each other, and find deeper connections as a result. They construct a “new” family. The honesty and connectedness of shared trauma and acceptance can lead to realization, aha moments, personal growth, and even joy/gratitude. Examples from the show:

Kali “grew up” with El in the lab but they had not seen each other for years. When they reunited Kali shared: “I just feel whole, like a piece of me was missing and now it’s not.” Kali also understands El’s pain and protects her. She offers her a new purpose and encourages El to develop her special abilities. Sadly, Kali chooses to use her powers to get violent revenge. Because of this, El decides to return to her original place of trauma.

And in spite of Kali telling El that Going back to Hawkins and her friends is pointless and empty, El cones to the realization that what and who she was searching for was there all the time. She wasn’t a monster or someone to blame for the upside down. She didn’t have to be an outcast either.

She could help her friends.

Stories like this one can offer us a way of communicating what can’t always be said out loud. They provide a chance to experiment with emotions that society often demands us to keep hidden. But stories can also make the intangible fears into literal things; in other words, indistinct kinds of anxiety can be channeled into flesh-and-blood enemies like the Demogorgon or Shadow Monster.

The darkness of trauma [the Upside Down], Stranger Things explains to us, is always there, in this dimension and in others. But there is a path to surviving it—not a quick fix, but a slow, arduous path to healing and recovery. And along that path are people who share our trauma, sit with us in times of loss, pain, and suffering. We find solidarity with them, friendship, and the kind of joy that goes far beyond surface happiness. It is the joy in knowing that your seemingly messed up, freakish existence is more than that. The trauma that you have suffered doesn’t tell your whole story. You are writing your story each day, right now. And others are interested in your fresh and unique narrative.

So friends, wherever you are on your journey today—whatever trauma you have suffered or are suffering, remember that you are not alone. Keep on writing your story anew. Much love to you in the Upside Down.

If you haven’t seen the Netflix original show Stranger Things, I highly recommend it. I won’t give a full synopsis here, but even if you are not familiar with it, I think what follows will still be relevant and hopefully meaningful.

Let’s talk about friendship.

CinePOP-Stranger-Things-7-1-750x380In Stranger Things, friendship takes center stage. It is set in 1983 in a small town in Indiana and follows the lives of Mike, Dustin, Lucas, Will, and El, 12-year old kids. Mike, Dustin, Will, and Lucas have been friends since early childhood and they have their own club with secrets, pacts, etc. Something shakes them to their core, however, when one of their group, Will Byers, gets trapped in what’s called the Upside Down, an alternative dimension. The whole town of Hawkins starts the search, but to no avail. Everyone fears the worst, including his closest friends.

And then, a mysterious girl shows up. She is first called “Eleven” because of the number tattooed on her wrist. Mike eventually calls her El and despite the suspicions of Dustin and Lucas, El becomes part of their friendship club. It is El’s unsettling arrival into the lives of the three boys that is the catalyst for the writers of Stranger Things to define what the story is all about—friendship, and to define what that means in this tale.

We first get a glimpse in a scene with the three boys [minus the missing Will] and El, in the basement of Mike’s house one day after school. Lucas is upset that Mike hasn’t told his mom about El–that she’s living in his basement and probably has escaped from somewhere bad. Mike refuses to tell and so Lucas decides to take matters into his own hands. He opens the door to go upstairs to tell Mike’s mom. But the door slams shut by itself. Lucas tries again. It slams shut again. Then, the boys look at El.

ElmindbenderHer stare could cut through solid steel. Her nose is bleeding. All she says is: NO. It’s the first time that the boys recognize El’s mysterious powers and what she can move with her mind. They are in awe of her, afraid even.

“We never would have upset you if we knew you had superpowers.”

Dustin is really honest. And though they all seem to fear El at this moment, their fear doesn’t prevent them from seeking to form a bond of friendship with her.

Problem is, El doesn’t know what “friend” even means. So Mike explains:

“A friend is someone you’d do anything for…friends tell each other things. And…
A promise is something you can’t break — ever. A friend is someone that you’d do anything for … and they never break a promise … that’s super important because friends tell each other things; things that parents don’t know. Friends tell each other the truth. And they definitely don’t lie to each other…”

PromiseST
This definition of friendship drives the story of Stranger Things. After all, El is someone who has no experience with trust. On the surface, Mike’s very dogmatic definition of a friend is very twelve-year-old cut-and-dry. But if we look closer, the friendship of this group of kids is really based on trust, reconciliation and self-sacrifice for the sake of love. This idea is demonstrated again and again, like when Will first goes missing and all the boys’ parents tell them it’s too dangerous to join the search party, but of course they go and look anyway. When El tells them that the Upside Down contains a monster, they still pull out their compasses to try to find the portal to that world.

I think much of the appeal of Stranger Things is the friendship theme. After all, we too long for honest, loving friendships with others. If we can say that we have only 1-2 friends like that well, then we are lucky, no? And I also think it’s a story worth telling and embracing during this season and any season for that matter, because friendship of this quality leads to acceptance and inner and outer peace. Friendship of this level, just like in Stranger Things, can be salvific, resurrecting, healing.

For Christians, the season of Advent is mean to be a time of deep reflection, service to others, and development of spiritual practices. The Scriptures people read tend to be Hebrew prophets like Isaiah, authors who paint a pretty bleak picture of humanity that is full of war, corruption, greed, and fear.

Tucked within that negative narrative, however, is the belief that light breaks through it all—that we and this world are meant to be so much more.

That there are voices crying out in the wilderness telling us to prepare a way of peace and reconciliation—a way forward in the middle of an endless desert. Thus, while the world around us and the people filling the earth can often cause us to fear or to isolate ourselves, we can count on one thing being constant. The Creator God of Isaiah is mighty and powerful, shaping the beauty and majesty of the natural world. And yet, this God/Elohim is also a gentle friend to humanity. The prophet flips the world upside down as the valleys are lifted up and the mountains made low. The uneven ground is leveled, and the rough places are made plain. This is God’s doing and all of humanity sees it together.

Like the kids in Stranger Things who fear El’s mighty powers, we too can come to fear this Divine Elohim. But if we look closer, we can soon realize that fear is not what our relationship should be built on. No, in a world that is dangerous and alienating enough we long for connections that build peace and trust–including any relationship we have with the Divine. Some of us feel like outcasts, strangers, or someone on the outside looking in. We seek belonging and people who we can trust. Thus, finding a true friend can mean that we find a home or a family. Discovering friends who form bonds with us of acceptance and understanding, who are willing to recognize our suffering and share our love, make life worth living.

El was not to be feared, but loved and accepted. So too are we made to seek out friendships with others who choose to hear us, who encourage us to fully be ourselves, who love us as we are.

Friendship of this kind can move us towards peace. It’s not easy, to be sure, and peace does not mean the absence of conflict. In the Judeo-Christian scriptural tradition, peace is shalom, and this means “universal flourishing, wholeness and delight…a rich state in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed…a state that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in. Shalom is the way things ought to be.” [1]

So kudos to the friends in Stranger Things. May we learn from them. May friendship open doors for you and welcome you in. May bonds of love and acceptance drive you forward. Make shalom reality.

[1] “Shalom: The Real Utopia”.

Living in the Upside Down

Isaiah 64:4-6; 8, 9b   
Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for Go.
You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways.
But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry.
How then can we be saved?
All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
Yet you, Yahweh, are our Parent.

We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.

Most likely you have at least heard the Netflix series Stranger Things, created by the Duffer Brothers. Or, if you are like me, you cannot WAIT for season three…

Stranger Things takes place in a small town in Indiana [full disclosure, I spent part of my childhood in a town in Indiana], and the story begins with the disappearance of a 12-year-old boy named Will Byers. Over time, we learn that a group of scientists has been experimenting on a girl with telekinetic abilities [she is called “11” because that is the number tattooed on her wrist], and Eleven eventually makes contact with a monster-creature that inhabits an alternate dimension, ripping open a gate between that world and ours. The creature crosses over and is able to take the aforementioned Will and another character, Barbara. I won’t go into any great detail, because I don’t want to spoil it for those of you who haven’t seen it yet.

What I do wish to focus on are the characters of Stranger Things and the two worlds that exist side-by-side and simultaneously: our dimension, and the alternative dimension, called the Upside-Down. First, let’s focus on a few of the characters, all of them friends: Mike, Dustin, and Lucas, and the missing Will. Eventually, a fifth member of their party is added, Eleven. These young friends are the main focal point for the narrative and end up acting as our eyes and ears throughout the series. For example, they give a name to the creature-monster from the Upside-Down—the Demogorgon—based on a creature in their Dungeons and Dragons gaming. They figure out with the help of their science teacher that the alternative dimension is an upside-down version of their world. Eleven, their new friend, becomes “El,” as Mike deems it the best way for her to blend in. These friends interpret the story for us as they assign meaning to all the that happening.

And what is happening is definitely strange and sinister. Not only is their friend Will missing; not only have they encountered El who is gifted in ways they could not have imagined; but also, there is not just one Demogorgon monster loose in their town—for the secret government facility on the outskirts is up to no good and holds the gate to the Upside-Down.

upsidedownSpeaking of the Upside-Down, it is a mirror image of our everyday world, but corrupted, toxic, gothic, and heavy. Thus, Stranger Things presents to us a reality in which the natural and supernatural coexist; a seemingly idyllic world of a small Midwestern town in the 1980’s contrasted with the death and danger of the Upside-Down.

SPOILER ALERT: as the story unfolds, we are presented with the mind-blowing and unsettling fact that the Upside-Down is not separated from our world. In fact, the Upside-Down can even be in us, around us—and if we look closely enough, we can spot the toxicity of the Upside-Down creeping into the roots and foundations of our lives.

Clearly, Stranger Things draws from a variety of mythological, spiritual, and religious traditions. The dualistic idea of two worlds coexisting is nothing new in many traditions around the world. Likewise, the contrast between a beautifully-imagined divine creation and a terrifying, fallen world may sound familiar to many of us. In Judaism and then the Christian religion that came out of it, these ideas were commonplace, that Elohim/God created the whole earth, universe, waters, creatures, etc., as beautiful and good. And yet, creation was capable of falling into a state of isolation and death, called Sheol or sometimes Hades.

During the season of Advent [four weeks leading up to Christ-mas], Western Christians read the Hebrew prophets like Isaiah with the recurring theme: though Elohim made the world good, people aren’t seeing this good and aren’t seeing God, for that matter. People wonder if God is absent or missing. The beauty of the world and of humanity has faded and crumpled up like fallen leaves.

The Upside-Down has become reality.

Yes, it’s true that the season of Advent is really not supposed to be candy canes, mistletoe, sleigh bells, and so-awful-that-they’re-good Hallmark holiday specials. Advent is a bit Debbie Downer; it’s gloomy; it’s too honest about the world; it does really feel Upside-Down!

But that’s the point, really. And that’s why I’m grateful for the great storytelling and wisdom of Stranger Things. We ought to be more honest about the state of our world and the state of us. We shouldn’t ignore the completely Upside-Down ways we follow in society and how we let people we don’t even know tell us how to live, who to love, what to eat, what to believe, how to express ourselves, how to think.

What is more upside-down than that?

No, if we learn anything from this upside-down season we are all living in, it is that we must let our curiosity doors be flung wide open, re-imagining a world in which all people are valued as they are and where violence is not the answer to anything. And indeed, that we are living in the balance of at least two realities—the one being the world we are conditioned to see and the rules we are told to follow. This world can of course trick us into thinking that everything is “normal” and “okay” when in fact it is just the opposite. For under the surface there are people crying out for justice; right inside our walls are voices begging for acceptance; lurking in the shadows are true monsters who only seek to control, manipulate, and destroy; our bucolic, nostalgic worlds are only surface worlds.

For behind every wreath, Christmas tree, and stocking is an Upside-Down reality.

And waking up to this is to embrace the Upside-Down hope of Advent. For the story of Advent isn’t some religious hocus-pocus or some doctrinal creed to swallow down your throat. This is a season of actively waiting—waiting and working for a better world, a kinder humanity, a peaceful existence. This season invites us to embrace the dark and the light as one reality in the world and in us all. For all the Demogorgons out there, there are just as many Els. And for any moment when we feel like Will, trapped in a toxic, lonely place all by ourselves, there are people who still can hear us. They are listening. They are looking for us. We are not alone. Peace to you this season in the Upside Down.

 

 

Alternative Wisdom

Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20

wisdomChineseThe most common type of wisdom in society is what we call conventional wisdom. This is the mainstream, what “everybody knows.” It is society’s understanding about what is real and how people should live. Conventional wisdom includes ideas that are so accepted they are not questioned. These ideas tell us now to live; we are socialized into conventional wisdom as we grow up.

Example: we are told that life is about reward and punishment, i.e. “your reap what you sow” or “get what you deserve.” Though this idea is prevalent in secular culture, it also exists in religion, i.e.: “God will reward or condemn you based on what you’ve done.” Obviously, conventional wisdom leads to social separations, because it claims that some people’s roles in society are more important than others.

A person’s self-worth or identity is based on how they measure up to society’s norms.

At the end of the day, conventional wisdom can lead to us thinking that the reality as we have labeled it is actually the end-all. This of course can close our minds to new realities and ideas.

There are many examples of conventional wisdom. Here are a few:

The Earth is flat. The Earth is the center of the Universe.
You have to make more money. It is always best to pursue promotions and jobs that pay more.
You should buy a house.
You should do tons of cardio exercise to lose weight.
Keep taking antibiotics so you won’t be sick.
In Hollywood: a movie can’t succeed unless it stars a famous actor.

What examples of conventional wisdom can you think of?

To bring this home, consider that many people’s image of God is based on their acceptance of conventional wisdom. God, for them, is the enforcer and the one who gives legitimacy to religious behaviors and viewpoints. It’s the idea that people must satisfy God…

conventional-wisdom-quote-minh-tan-halifaxNow let’s switch gears to alternative wisdom—a grouping of ideas and perspectives that are not afraid to ask questions, to challenge convention. Alternative wisdom confronts the so-called norms of society and asks why we consider these norms to be our reality. For example, conventional wisdom says that a person’s worth is determined by measuring up to social standards. Alternative wisdom says that all people have infinite worth that is intrinsic and not based on merit. Likewise, while conventional wisdom says that our identity comes from social tradition, alternative wisdom says that identity comes from centering in the sacred, and in our humanity. And finally, conventional wisdom tells us to strive to be first in line for everything, no matter what. Alternative wisdom says that the last will be first and the first will be last.

Can you think of your own examples of alternative wisdom?

More specifically, in Jewish and Christian Scriptures, there is most certainly a blend of conventional and alternative wisdom. If you look closely enough, I’m sure you can find various examples of both. To bring this conversation to its center I would like to hone in on alternative wisdom as it was for Jesus of Nazareth. For Jesus, parables were storytelling methods of imparting alternative wisdom. The parables were not black and white. They asked questions. Typically, wisdom teachers like Jesus, Socrates, Buddha—they focused on a “wise” way and a “foolish” way; a narrow way and a broad way. Instead of telling people how to live or which rules to follow, wisdom teachers made observations about life and spoke from experience. This is why Jesus periodically referred to nature.

Jesus of Nazareth, unlike other religious leaders and teachers of the time, and unlike many of the churches and religious leaders of today, did not spend so much time interpreting scriptures. Instead, Jesus taught and modeled experiential living—the daily experiences people have.

Rather than focusing on written words, Jesus focused on the experience of God.

Jesus and others invited people to see something they might not have otherwise seen, to look past conventional wisdom and conditioned culture to something beyond, something that could transform a person. For example, the idea that a person’s purpose in life is to follow certain rules so that God will be pleased and then, when they die, God will allow that person to go to heaven—this is not the alternative wisdom of Jesus. Instead, Jesus flipped this convention on its head, saying that those who were thought of as the lowest and the least religious would be the ones better off in the end. Jesus’ wisdom portrayed God as Giver of Compassion and not Judge. Further, when Jesus spoke of death, it was not a physical death, but a death of that conventional self—dying to the societal norms that trap us and living into a new reality of transformation, resurrection and enlightenment.

Friends, don’t buy into conventional wisdom. Be different, be weird, defy the conventions.

Ask questions about why we do this or that. Seek alternative wisdom—based on what you see in nature, what you actually feel within yourself, and your own experiences. Seek and develop alternative wisdom, as this will help you see the bigger picture and enable you to get to know yourself better, apart from all the social conditioning and convention.

Give heed to alternative wisdom, which gives assurance that we are truly alive.

Tag Cloud

My Journey 2 My Peace

Overcoming Anxiety and learning to live Positively

Deeper in me than I

eloquia oris mei et meditatio cordis mei

Mind Squirrels

Ideas that Work

Silence Teaches Us Who We Are

Silence, Centering Prayer, Contemplative Prayer, Jesus, God, and Life.

Casa HOY

On the road to change the world...

myrandomuniverse

a philosophical, analytic, occasionally snarky but usually silly look at the thoughts that bounce around....

"Journey into America" documentary

Produced by Akbar Ahmed

Interfaith Crossing

|||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||

Prussel's Pearls

An Actor's Spiritual Journey

The Theological Commission's Grand, Long-Awaited Experiment

Modeling Civility Amidst Theological Diversity

a different order of time

the work of a pastor

learn2practice

mood is followed by action

Imago Scriptura

Images & Thoughts from a Christian, Husband, Father, Pastor

the living room.

117 5th Street, Valley Junction__HOURS: M 9-5, TW 7-7, TH 7-9, F 7-7, S 8-5, S 9-4

the view from 2040

theological education for the 21st century